In the second week of August, a significant number of American students are returning to school or have already started. However, the timing of “back-to-school” varies greatly depending on the region of the United States you reside in. Some may find this early start surprising, while others consider it normal.
An analysis of a selection of over 13,000 public school districts across the country reveals that back-to-school dates differ significantly from state to state and region to region. By the end of this week, for instance, the majority of elementary and secondary school students in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee – states falling under the East South Central region according to the Census Bureau – will already be attending school. In contrast, not a single district in the New England and Middle Atlantic states will start classes before August 26, with many waiting until after Labor Day.
The district with the earliest start date among the 500-plus districts in the sample is the Chandler Unified School District in Arizona, which serves part of suburban Phoenix. The approximately 44,000 students in Chandler Unified returned to school on July 23, though they will have three two-week “intersession” breaks, the first of which begins on September 30. On the other end of the spectrum, Trenton, New Jersey public schools, with nearly 14,000 students, won’t commence classes until September 9, the latest start date in the analysis.
In general, earlier start dates are more prevalent in the South and Southwest. In a cluster of 13 states stretching from Arizona to Florida and reaching up to South Carolina, around 79% of the examined districts will be back in session by the end of this week. On the other hand, later start dates are more common along the East Coast (from Maine to North Carolina), the upper Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan), and the Northwest (Oregon and Washington).
Traditionally, the tourism and hospitality industries have favored later back-to-school dates, arguing that they provide families with more vacation time and teenagers with greater opportunities for summer jobs. Virginia, for example, had the “Kings Dominion law” in place since 1986, which prevented most schools in the state from opening before Labor Day. Earlier this year, however, the law was amended to allow districts to start up to two weeks earlier, provided that they give students a four-day Labor Day weekend. Despite this change, six out of the ten Virginia districts in the analysis will begin the 2019-20 school year after Labor Day. Two districts will open on August 26, one on August 22, and one (due to a special provision) on August 12.
For this study, the researchers focused on the ten largest local school districts in each state, excluding Hawaii and the District of Columbia which have only one district each. Additionally, they examined additional districts in Texas, Florida, and California to include the 100 largest districts in the nation in the final sample of 509 districts. Private and parochial schools, public charter schools, state-run schools, and other educational institutions operating on their own schedules were excluded. Overall, the analysis covered approximately 36% of the nation’s 50.6 million public elementary and secondary students.
The researchers determined the primary start dates for fall classes for most first through twelfth-grade students in each district in the sample. (Kindergarten students often start school later than their older peers.) In cases where start dates were staggered by school or grade level, a date range was used.
Out of the total districts in the sample, 124 (representing 29% of students) have a start date between August 12 and August 16, making it the most popular start week. Another 74 districts (14% of students) began earlier in the summer, and 93 districts (19% of students) will resume classes next week.
However, 105 districts (14% of students) will not begin until the last week of August, with nearly half of them (48) in New England or the Middle Atlantic states (New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania). And an additional 113 districts (23% of students) will not start until after Labor Day, with the exception of 22 districts in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, which are below the Mason-Dixon line.
Is the trend moving towards earlier start dates compared to the past? The study did not analyze school calendars from previous years or decades for the sample districts. However, there is some evidence that suggests more secondary-school students are spending part of their summers in the classroom.
A separate analysis conducted by the Pew Research Center found that American teenagers are dedicating more of their summer hours to educational activities and less time to leisure compared to previous years.